Friday, December 25, 2020

'Twas Christmas (1976) Killed the Beast

The first movie I ever went to see was King Kong.  Thank you, Dad. The shit you sat through for me... The film we saw wasn't a revival of the 1933 Merian C. Cooper classic, (which Dad introduced me to thanks to the wonders of afternoon movies) but the 1976 Dino DeLaurentis version that a lot of people consider shlock.

Those people can kiss my buttocks.

Nostalgia trumps all in this discussion, as my memories of the film are vivid and powerful and important.  It was pre-Star Wars in terms of the cross marketing potential.  There were King Kong drinking glasses, and lunchboxes, and puzzles, and pajamas, and bubble gum cards, and I was doing my damndest at the age of 5 to be hip deep in all of that shit.


But the movie itself was a spectacle to behold.  Rick Baker and Carlo Rambaldi's work, the creation of this ape of all apes, for a new "special effects age" may not have been mind-blowing, but it surpassed acceptable. (Word is Baker gives cinematographer  Richard Kline all the credit for the King's visual success.)  The score was (and is) unsettling and befitting the eighth wonder of the world and his rampage, as well as becoming quite moving during the poignant final moments of the epic.   In my opinion voice-magic wunderkind Peter Cullen's vocal roar, is the greatest of all the Kongs.  Fight Me. 

 I was star-struck and spellbound as a 5 year old, taken to the brink of suspense on numerous occasions.  (Even if some dingus kid yelled out "bad breath!" when Kong blow-dries a soaking wet Jessica Lange, eliciting laughter from the crowd and disgust from me.  Heathens. This may be where my hatred of the general public began.  I love movies, concerts, and political speeches, but do these motherfuckers really have to be here too?)  Kong's introduction at the gates, his fight with prehistoric snakes, the New York onslaught, and sadly, the reminder of the World Trade Center, all parts of a terribly entertaining, if not perfect film.  There's a lot to love here to this day.  And hey! welcome to Hollywood, Jessica Lange, and a young Jeff Bridges walks the walk that he will maintain for decades.  Jeff is still the man.  For an undertaking of this kind, held together in this pre-CGI era, you have to give director John Guillermin his due.  Brava, maestro.  

Released December 17, 1976, it is a fond Christmas memory for me, and always will be.  My Dad, rest his soul, always engaged me in my love of film, even at a young age.  This wasn't a Disney movie, or some Muppets Run Amok vehicle,  Benji's revenge,  or "(enter name of celebrity) meets a Chimp", the family films of choice in this era.  

This was King Fucking Kong.   And I was never the same.  Sorry critics, but this movie slaps.  

Thanks Dad for having the coglioni to bring your 5 year old to this event. Thanks to Mom, that Christmas, there was a metal King Kong lunchbox and box puzzle under the Christmas tree for me that year, and I got all 4 of the individual Coca-Cola drinking glasses that I believe were a Burger King promotion.  All of which are now long gone to the gritty sands of time.

Ah, Holidays in the 70's. 


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Max Brooks Has a Gift

 I've told many people that World War Z is the scariest book I've ever read.  Sadly, most people associate it with the Brad Pitt zombie movie that came out a few years back.  Don't get me wrong, it's a pretty damn good walking dead flick (though I don't care for the hive-mind fast zombies) but it's not a good representation of Max Brooks' book.  It's not even close.

See, World War Z is an oral history. One of those books that is told from the point of view of a wide array of people that lived through the experience.  Drawing inspiration from the works of Studs Turkel, Max creates the Zombie war from beginning to end, and employs characters and incidences that feel flat out real, because the events are generated not from a third person narrative, but from the mouths of those who survived the horrors of the book's events.  He makes you believe that something as ridiculous as the reanimated dead eating people could happen, not just in the horrific detail of the attacks, but by illustrating the reactions of the common folk as they stumble about trying to survive, and the response of those in authority, not just here, but around the globe as they flail to solve the problem and limit the damage, while not going to war with one another. 

As a layer of realism, that most authors cannot top, Brooks published the quirky book "The Zombie Survival Guide" a couple of years before Z, that I picked up off the shelf of a bookstore's humor section.  I remember reading it, and not laughing.  It felt like a guidebook for survival for the general public, should a zombie outbreak somehow actually occur. 

Well, guess what? That's literally what it is, because in World War Z, the tome is referred to as something that was distributed to the masses, much like America did in previous wars, to help them acclimate to a situation that was hard to imagine, but needed dealing with directly and efficiently. 

Brooks knows how to inhabit a character, richly, fully, and by finding subtleties and humor that most writers cannot. He did it again in his new book Devolution, which also follows a concept many would find ridiculous to a comical level and creates a riveting narrative through the journal pages of the main protagonist, Kate.  The pages describe in growing suspense how she and her neighbors, living in an eco-paradise, are forced to become survivalists in the wake of a Mt. Rainier eruption as migrating Sasquatches decide to attack their community.

The Journal, combined with actual scientific information about Sasquatch history and commentary from a character's brother and a fictional forestry expert, are pages that will not be put down.  It feels real and that's what gives Devolution its terror as you genuinely fall in love with Kate and her overmatched technology-dependent nature dwellers as they face something they never would think imaginable. 

In both Brooks' books, you feel the way things break down in regards to their handling by the authorities, and the folks involved, is exactly how it would shake loose in real life.  It's a layer of unease that makes the storytelling all the more compelling.  You think to yourself:  This shit could happen, man. And this is what they would do.  If you don't believe me, check out the words of the first head of homeland security, Tom Ridge, as he says: "I wish we could elevate the national dialogue on public safety to a level of tone and focus that Max Brooks has demonstrated for all of us."

That's pretty incredible, in terms of the praise and who it came from.  Because it's not hard to find the warnings Brooks provides in both books.  We need to get our shit together, and the shit is even less together now in the era of an administration that has foxes in charge of hen houses, and a hefty chunk of the public whose main goal for their leaders is to "own the libs", spout racist rhetoric and not a lot else.

The ability to create Brooks' both logistically knowledgeable and painfully human narrative style is what makes him one of the more gifted writers of his generation.  I cannot wait for what he does next, I just hope it won't be as long a wait as it was between Z and Devolution.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Vinyl Destination: Rock and Roll Iconography: Gerard Huerta

A few weekends back, I was cleaning some of my vinyl albums.  

Yes. I do that. Shut up.

Anyways, looking at the sleeves, I became aware of the logos of the bands, many of which are from the 70s and 80s.  My tastes vary widely. (My favorite genre of music is power pop, which just nudges out punk for the lead.  Vive Le Knack!)  And I noticed the iconic logos bands had back then, and thought about how that's not really subscribed to these days.  I'm talking about the symbols of AC/DC, Foreigner, Boston, Led Zeppelin, April Wine, Ted Nugent's font, et al.  I'm sure the uniformity and consistency of usage helped with the sale of t-shirts, bumper stickers, baseball caps, and dare I say, thanks to the graphic prominence, even albums themselves.  Lord knows, the grocery bag textbook covers that I had in junior high and middle school became canvases for my attempts at replicating my favorite bands name logos.  More unsuccessful than not, I may add.  This shit ain't easy.

Many of the most recognizable and long-standing logos of a lot of these bands were designed by a man named Gerard Huerta.  His eye-catching and amazingly symmetrical work was incredible, all the more admirable due to the fact that these were done before the era of computer aided design and graphics tools.  A bit of internet search will show that his work has been seen by everyone whether they know it or not. He's designed product and company logos and other striking work that is commonplace.  He just doesn't get nearly enough credit.  I guess that's what I'm doing here.

His skill is incredible. In the 7th grade, my art teacher gave us an assignment to recreate an album cover with pencil, and then duplicate it up in size and paint it.  I picked Boston's debut album.  I won't say I'm ashamed of it, but it wasn't what I had hoped it would be upon completion. It gave me a case of the "Mehs".  The band logo alone was incredibly difficult to mimic to its specifications, let alone the rest of the art on that cover.  I gained serious respect for Mr. Huerta at that point, even if I didn't know his name yet.

As a chap that thinks band logos are just sweet in general, my favorite is the Blue Oyster Cult logo initially used for the cover of "On Your Feet or On Your Knees", which ironically is also a Gerard Huerta creation (and given tribute by the comedic fictional band, Spinal Tap).  It's a logo that is memorable and somehow looks fearsome at the same time, and I'd wear the shit out of a t-shirt with that alone on it if I could find one.

Anyways, Cheers, Mr. Huerta.  Your mark is definitely left all over the world, and if you don't receive the credit you deserve, I hope to be giving you a bit of that here. Thank you for your art, for your craft.  It's indelibly burned into the zeitgeists of decades of Americana.

For further looks at Mr. Huerta's work, check this out:


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Ode to Jim

        A few weeks ago, I had the honor of spending the last few hours my brother in law Jim had on this plane with him.  It was painful of course, but also carried with it a certain grace, that has helped me process it easier and with a shade of warmth that shows itself as unexpected and welcome.

    I will miss him dearly, as in the time I spent getting to know him, he brought true oddball laughter into my life, and made family love and acceptance easy.

     You didn't shake hands with Jim, you hugged.  House Rules, man.

    He had the ability, perhaps one could call it a gift, to make you feel like you were the only person in the room when he spoke to you. I haven't encountered that from anyone else on the planet where it didn't feel like there was a motive behind it. Like it was bullshit.  With Jim it was genuine, because he remembered what you were saying, and would ask about it later.  He did that with children, with teenagers, with complete strangers.  Incredible.

     He like to mark moments, too.  He picked things, and made them grand when you least expected it.  A shared love of bologna sandwiches brought us to Meteor Burger in Richardson.  You'd think he was eating the greatest thing ever created by any deity anywhere. So after a couple hours of Brother Talk and chasing bologna with RC Cola, he found the owner of the place and made sure we all had our picture taken together and posted it on social media.

    I  guess this kind of thing was regular with Jim. It amazed me.

     A lot of people love music. I adore music.  I'm one of those emphatic nerds that has vinyl records, and watches documentaries about bands.  Jim carried music with him.  Not necessarily physically, like with an iPod, though.  He was always singing, always humming, lyrics became emphatic exclamation points in conversation.  A killer sense of rhythm, a fine voice, and a tonal curiosity made Jim what music was really all about.  He was figuring out guitar in recent months, and played electronic drums on iPhone apps, made surrounding objects into bongos.

     Jim was who music was for.

     He found it funny that I programmed his personal ring-tone on my cellphone to be the BeeGees "You Should Be Dancin'"  I won't say there wasn't comedic value involved, but somehow it just seemed right.  His tastes varied from Pearl Jam to Bruno Mars, and all locations in between.  Whether it was some classic rock 70's group like Journey to something just released by a modern pop monstrosity he recently heard on the radio,  Jim would enjoy almost all of it, and deeply.  He was a master critic of cover bands.  He enjoyed all forms of live music with great relish and had a set list in his head of the ultimate concert.

     He was a football nut too.  College and Pro, died-in-the-wool cowboy fan.  Being a Packer fan myself, this led to some interesting sparks and discussions and text message tomfoolery.  Nothing more funny than team loyalists dogging on each other when those two teams clash.  Where I'm living now, Packer games aren't carried live, so I have to go to the local official Packer sports bar, Hub Streat, to watch them.  Jim went with me, to provide company I'd otherwise not have and even rooted for my beloved Pack with me over sliders and Cokes.   He texted me Go Cowboys, Go Pack! on Sundays. 

     I'm going to miss the shit out of that.

     I'm going to miss the effect on discussions the family had.  The chats. How he would chirp "Thank YOU" when you agreed with him on a salient point, or "ex-ACT-ly" when he finally got you to understand, and how in some roundabout way he had just made you feel better about something you were confiding in him.

     Jim carried presence.  It will be hard not having it around anymore, but perhaps remembering and celebrating it, maybe even emulating it, will make moving forward easier.

     I feel like I have to, because I know if I didn't, he would kick my ass.  Or at least he would have given me some serious shit about it.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Return of the 70's

At the beginning of the year, I caught the Flu.  It put me down for several days, and I took the opportunity to catch up on some reading.  In just a couple days I put away "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: a Cultural Study".  A fascinating read really, less about the film itself, but more about the constructs of the decade, and how it both informed the movie and was partially shaped by it. I couldn't argue with most of it's very valid points.  The tome comes off as an armchair observation of the 1970's and the prolific intensities it spawned.

The decade in which I was born was unique the way it unleashed some unabashed barbarism, with it's cults and serial killers.  Jim Jones and David Berkowitz showed up on the nightly news almost daily.  The former's wake, spotted by myself with commentary by Dan Rather, kept me up for several nights.  It wasn't just the horrific nature of Jones' hideous accomplishments that bothered me, as it was the fact that people could find themselves enthralled by someone to the point that they'd be willing to do the unthinkable at their bidding.  Berkowitz, as well as Bundy, Richard Ramirez, and the Zodiac had people living in fear in major metropolitan centers across the United States.  These dark villains activities unspooled across the screen on the news, leaving me disturbed motionless, staring at the grainy and disturbing images that represented their despicable handiwork.  Astonishingly awful knowledge.

The book also highlights the other things that made the 70's infamous.  Pornography managed to push itself into the mainstream, an oil crisis caused fuel rationing and long lines at the filling stations (this was the underlying factor in the downfall of the unfortunate youths at the center of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's storyline) and of course Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace at the culmination of the Watergate scandal.

Now we face the most heinous viral threat since the Spanish Flu in Covid 19...  We have a president who is without a doubt far more of a criminal than Richard Nixon ever was, but remains in place due to the backing of a Republican senate that is devoid of all of the values and love of the constitution that their predecessors displayed 40 years ago.  This man continues to spit out scandals at a dizzying rate, and say things that would have ended previous presidencies.

This fatigues the country, weakening it's load bearing beams.

His presence has furthered the ideological divide this country was closing thanks to 60 years of equal and civil rights blood, sweat and tears.  Violence reminiscent of the Civil Rights era has begun to appear in the mainstream media at a stomach churning rate from Charlottesville to Ahmaud Arbery. Behavior emboldened by an apathetic and possible racist government.

I think we are in this generation's 70's. Surprisingly, it wasn't the Coronavirus that made me think of this element, it was more the shouting.  If you look at the strife in the 60's that bent into the 70's, particularly in relation to Vietnam or Roe v. Wade, protesting was thick and vivid at the forefront of all of it.  Protesting has been permeating into the public mainstream in a way I haven't seen in my lifetime.  But instead of young liberals who have had it up to here with the inaction of their elected representation (and trust me there is plenty of protest in that regard, mind you, The Women's March comes immediately to mind there) but the far right has gathered in disturbingly reminiscent fashion.

Not since the days the Klan burned wood down southern streets have we seen the ideological right cluster together at top volume. Charlottesville is a sickening specimen of this, complete with a murder.  Now gathering together to protest the stay-at-home regulations spawned by Covid-19, they do this in defiance of their hero Donald Trump's own guidelines, (oxymoronically egged on by the man, the thinking here can twist your brain into a pretzel) and quite possibly spreading the disease further in the process. The internet has fueled the ideological vocal athletics from both sides to a level unseen since American temperaments bubbled over in the 70's.

Carter was hardly a detrimental president, and is now a humanitarian icon.  He may have been overmatched, but at least he gave a shit.  But at the turn of the decade, as we wound into 1980,  America saw Reagan as a steadying hand, and love him or hate him (and there's reasons for both) he did seem to inject a balancing agent into the country as a whole.  Now?  It feels like the country is in race car that has lost the ability to manipulate the controls with a madman at the wheel and an indifferent or partially asleep cheering section in the back seat.

It's not hard to see the storm clouds on the horizon.  I don't know what's coming, but it scares the shit out of me. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Those Quiet Moments II :35th Ave sound absorption

It wasn't long before Christmas.  Anticipation of the holidays was firm in the air literally and figuratively.

I had a job at a local convenience store, known then as SuperAmerica before Speedway changed all that.  I generally worked there until about 10:30 at night several days a week as a full time college student.   This was back in the days of impulse VHS rentals, credit card imprinters, and checking tank levels with an abominally long wooden yard stick device in blistering horizontal rain.

There was no rain this night.  As a matter of fact a pretty strong snowstorm had just moved through during my shift, and the plows had only just finished their work before I clocked out, locked up and started my brief walk home to my sister and brother-in-law's home where my student ass rented out the basement.  I had an improvised apartment down there complete with waterbed, splitter-fed cable tv connected to my miniature (albeit color) television. Since it wasn't a digital channel model, I was limited to the 12 channels on the dial. (I watched a LOT of CNN back then.)  I was also blessed with an extra heater, for those abnormally cold nights, which some would call a pair of panty hose affixed to a disconnected dryer vent.

As I turned down 35th avenue to my sister's place, I noticed the sounds that had been gathering behind me, wind, police and fire sirens, truck-bolstered traffic, began to lessen.  Almost deflate.
The further I made it down the street, the quieter it became.  Snow was built up on the numerous trees thickening them to three times their normal size. The snow was this close to falling off, but just quite wasn't coming down.  The plows had pushed the snow on the curbs to a good four feet high.  The only audible sound was the dense crunch of my boots crushing the already flattened snow (courtesy of snowblowers) into the concrete of the sidewalk.

For those unfamiliar, snow absorbs sound.  But the powder on the street, gathered on the rooftops and hanging from the trees was litterally creating a vacuum of noise.  I kept stopping several times, closing my eyes to listen to what effectively was.....

a complete void of sound.

The streetlights lit the white of the snow that hadn't had a chance to get dirty yet, and against the pitch black of the night sky, it formed an accompaniment to the silence that was almost breathtaking.

I actually took a knee at the end of my sister's driveway to take it all in a little longer before going in to throw some clothes in the dryer.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Those Quiet Moments I : Schofield Summer Sky

After an 18 month stay in Waco, Texas and 6 more in Kenosha, Wisconsin, my parents decided a more slight nudge to the north was needed.   We scooted another 300 miles north to central Wisconsin to the town of Schofield, a quasi-suburb of Wausau, the metroplex of the center of the state.  This would be home for only my next couple of years, as trade school would soon call me back to Kenosha.

But this is about an evening.  Some moments in an evening, actually.  We had only been in an apartment complex on Mount View in Schofield for a few weeks, and for some reason sleep had been difficult.  My bedroom was smaller than I was used to, and I was sleeping on the lower bunk of a heavy wooden set of bunk beds.  It was a very balmy June evening, one not quite warm enough to prompt mom to turn the air conditioner on, but kept me under a single sheet as I struggled to find slumber somewhere. 

As I often did back then, long before sharing a bed with another, I wandered to fight off insomnia.  I sat up, in my sweat pants and tee-shirt, yawned, and trekked over to my small bedroom window.  

The sky looked odd.  Strange enough to stir a weird and uncomfortable feeling in my gut.

What the hell is going on up there?

I pulled my shoes out from under my bed and made my way down the hall and out of our apartment entrance.  It was the middle of the night, the witching hour, so I was as quiet as I could be as I walked out the pair of huge heavy doors that constituted the entrance to the apartment building.  There was a large empty field adjacent to the complex that I made use of.  When friends and family came, we threw the ball around out there for hours, played pick up football games, occasionally pitched tents for an evening of sleep outdoors.  I walked out to the middle of this grassy anomaly, surrounded by other apartment buildings, a large quantity of deciduous trees, and a quiet, seldom used road.  It was then, with a Coke in my hand, that I looked straight up into the sky.

And spilled the Coke that I had just opened.

The stars.  I had never seen so many in one place, and thought skies like this were impossible. Unless it was an image on TV that I always thought was somehow doctored, even long before the era of PhotoShop.   I no longer felt that way.  It wasn't just the sheer volume of stars, it was the way they were positioned across the sky in waves and in clusters, both crystal clear and soft-lens blurred.  this  created a twinkling glow that wasn't like a full moon but provided enough light to make out my surroundings....

I rubbed my eyes.   Closed them.  Rubbed them once more and looked back up.

Nope, still there.

Good God, it was beautiful.  It looked like someone has spread the astral bodies across the sky with a butter knife. I'd never seen it like that before, and don't know that I ever have since.  I'd read somewhere that northern midwest skies are sometimes given to unnatural clarity and even appearances of the Northern Lights, which years later I would actually see myself resulting in more spills.  (that's another story) But here above my head, was the proof.  Those skies that I had always chalked up to special effects and visual man-made magic were not only possible....

but right in front of my face.

I don't know how long I stood there. It may have been an hour.  I was afraid it would never happen again so I wanted to cement in my memory as much as humanly possible.  My only regret was given the late hour, I had no one to share it with.  No one would believe this when I relayed it in the morning.

But as the years have gone by, I'm kind of glad that I have it to myself.